A new ‘Turing Test’ for free will can determine whether somebody, or something, thinks it has free will. And your iPhone may well pass
If you’ve ever found your iPhone taking control of your life, there may be a good reason. It may think it has free will.
That may not be quite as far-fetched as it sounds. Today, one leading scientist outlines a ‘Turing Test’ for free will and says that while simple devices such as thermostats cannot pass, more complex ones like iPhones might.
The problem of free will is one of the great unsolved puzzles in science, not to mention philosophy, theology, jurisprudence and so on. The basic question is whether we are able to make decisions for ourselves or whether the outcomes are predetermined and the notion of choice is merely an illusion.
This is not a question that is likely to be answered quickly or easily. But an interesting approach is to ask whether our latest insights and theories of the universe can throw light on the problem.
There are two relatively new ideas that are particularly relevant. The first is quantum mechanics, the theory that describes the universe on the smallest scale. The second is the theory of computation which underpins much of modern technology and most of what passes for research in artificial intelligence. What bearing do these theories have on our understanding of free will?
Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Seth Lloyd, one of the world’s leading quantum mechanics and theorists, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Lloyd argues that quantum mechanics does not provide any mechanism that helps us understand free will. By contrast, he shows that the theory of computation is far more useful.
He argues that there are clear mechanisms in computation that make the outcome of a given calculation unpredictable, especially to the person or object making it. The key contribution of this latest work is a mathematical proof of this idea.
It is this inability to know the outcome of our own deliberations that gives rise to our impression that we possess free will, he says. And this limitation can form the basis of a “Turing test” of free will.
For many thinkers, the fundamental issue of free will is whether the deterministic laws of the universe can produce an intrinsically unpredictable outcome. If our thought processes are governed by these deterministic laws, then surely a given outcome is determined long before we begin to think about it.
For others, such as the physicist Roger Penrose, the issue is resolved by quantum mechanics, which is inherently probabilistic. If our thought processes are somehow governed by quantum mechanics, then it is no surprise that the outcomes can be unpredictable.
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